Andy Mitten is our man in Manchester as the debut seasons of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola head to a conclusion at Manchester United and City, respectively. This is Chapter 7 of a nine-part series.
The 20 Manchester United fans who were denied entry to the closed-doors derby between Manchester City and United's under-18 teams may hold a different view, but the 2-2 game at the Etihad Campus last month was a fine exhibition of youth football on a miserable, drizzly, Mancunian morning. Twice United went ahead, twice City equalised.
Peter Bolton, a United fan who follows the club's under-18s and under-23 teams everywhere, managed to sneak past officious stewards, who were only admitting players' parents on their list.
"City were clear favourites," explains the 60-year old retired taxi driver from South Manchester. "They've spent much more on their youth system in recent years, yet United performed really well. You could see it really mattered to both teams. United's attacking midfielder, Angel Gomes, is a superb player, and City had some lads who look the part—not that I pay them much attention."
One young Blue, Ian Carlo Poveda, a 17-year old born in London to Colombian parents, received the ball with his back to goal, then beat two opponents and ran towards the United goal. "Those feet!" tweeted Manchester City's official academy Twitter account, including a 16-second clip of the move.
Lukas Nmecha, an 18-year-old German-born attacker who grew up on the vast Wythenshawe estate close to Manchester Airport, scored both City goals. As the gaggle of Spanish speakers by the side of the pitch indicated, not all City players were brought to the club from so close to home.
Both Manchester clubs cast their nets globally to find future talents. They want the best young players in the world, yet the intensity of the derby has changed little from 35 years ago when a young Norman Whiteside was involved in a 'friendly' five-a-side derby between United and City at Stretford Leisure Centre close to Old Trafford. "Sir Matt Busby was in attendance along with friends and family," recalls Whiteside.
United's legendary former manager could have no complaints about his commitment. "I tackled a City player so hard that he flew up in the air and ended up landing on Sir Matt's lap. I won the challenge and I won the ball," says Whiteside.
Whiteside was an extreme rarity—a player who jumped from youth football to the first team at the age of 16. He's still the youngest player to score a senior United goal. Modern-day miracles do happen—18-year-old Mancunian Marcus Rashford scored the only goal in last season's Manchester derby—but no matter how well-stocked the talent pools are, it's still hard for young players to break into the first team, where instant success is demanded and patience limited.
Both clubs are pouring money into their youth systems, determined to raise their own superstars. Both clubs entice players, scouts and coaches from each other, in a cold war which neither club wishes to publicise, amidst much distrust and suspicion. Both start their player recruitment with five-year-olds, flattering parents who are seduced with offers of schooling, the best facilities, jobs and coaching.
City have undoubtedly caught up, and United's reign as the kings of youth football is now the stuff of yore, but it would be premature to write off United's youth system, with Angel Gomes a prime example.
"Gomes is still very small, but he sees the game seconds before others," says Danny Webber, who came through United's youth system before a career in all of England's top four divisions. Webber watches the young sides of United and City closely. "Angel is like Paul Scholes; he can dictate a game with his intelligence."
Born in London in August 2000, the No. 10 Gomes is the captain of England's U17s. His father was a semi-professional footballer from Angola who played for two Manchester teams, Hyde and Salford City—the latter now owned by several famous graduates of United's class of '92 youth side.
Webber picks out three other young United players to watch.
"Tyrell Warren is a Manchester lad who reminds me of Wes Brown. He's fearless, a leader who is not frightened of a tackle. Has to work on the technical side of his game, but he has pride in the shirt and can play centre-half or right-back.
"George Tanner is another very talented young player. He's converted from centre forward to central midfield and looks like an all-around midfielder. He's still just 17. Josh Harrop is 21, and I'm amazed he'd had no first-team games anywhere and don't know why he hasn't gone on loan. Josh has the ability to open up defences."
Webber also likes Axel Tuanzebe, a quick, athletic man-marking defender similar to Des Walker. He's not brilliant on the ball, but United's current first-team centre-backs are hardly Paolo Maldini class in the playmaking stakes.
Identifying standout talents from City's youngsters is easy, according to Webber, because of the embarrassment of riches there.
"Jadon Sancho is excellent," says Webber of the 17-year-old bought from Watford. "He plays on the wide-left, yet he's right-footed. He floats across front line, ghosts past players and terrorises defences. He's a confident player who is good friends with Angel Gomes.
"Phil Foden from City's under 18s is a tidy but gritty midfielder," says Webber, of an English player who's been compared to David Silva and is highly regarded by Pep Guardiola. "He sees the game well, he makes an impact with touches that count. He scores goals, brings the best out of teammates and he'll get better with time. If these young players have a pathway to the first team—and I hope they do with Guardiola, who is not bothered about criticism and already has youngsters training with the first team—they'll play for England."
Webber also picks out Nmecha and Demeaco Duhaney, a Mancunian right-back "who is like Daniel Alves, getting forward and flying bravely into tackles. City's under 18s are a special group. City have invested heavily and gone worldwide at all costs. United are playing catch-up but are now starting to compete again at some age groups."
Jose Mourinho looks out across the lush green fields of Manchester United's Aon Training Complex at Carrington on the edge of Manchester's urban sprawl.
"Here, until they are 16, they play for peanuts," he told me recently. "They play friendlies."
In January, I asked Mourinho about youth football—why Portugal, with a population of roughly 10 million, produces so much football talent. He had no problem providing an answer.
"Because the competition at youth level is very good," he said. "I'm not saying the formation of players is good everywhere. We don't have magic coaches. We don't have any special powder which makes players. Competition makes players. At the age of 13, 14, 15, the kids in Portugal play already 15 times Benfica against Porto, Porto against Sporting and Sporting against Benfica to decide the champion of Portugal."
Mourinho doesn't hide his frustration with the English academy system. He's not alone in that respect.
United were once famed as a conveyor belt of homegrown young talent. The Busby Babes and the class of 92 are integral to what the club calls the Greatest Football Story Ever Told. Great players have always come through the ranks, and the club's top five all-time appearance holders—Ryan Giggs, Sir Bobby Charlton, Scholes, Bill Foulkes and Gary Neville—all progressed through a youth system which has provided a player in United's match-day squad for all 3,854 first-team games since October 1937.
No other club can claim such a record. But United are no longer the top dogs in youth football. The competition has drawn level and in some cases has moved ahead of them. In reaction, United have ramped up investment in scouting, coaching and facilities.
In the FA Youth Cup, the flagship domestic tournament for youth football and one United previously dominated from the Busby Babes onwards, United were eliminated at the first hurdle at home to Southampton. City and Chelsea steamrolled through the rounds, mostly beating opponents by four and five until the last-eight stage.
The pair will meet again in the final after Chelsea hammered Spurs 9-2 on aggregate in the semi-final and City won their first leg 6-0 against Stoke City. This will be the sixth consecutive year in which Chelsea have reached the FA Youth Cup final, a streak that began a year after a Manchester United team featuring Jesse Lingard, Michael Keane and Paul Pogba won the 2011 final against Sheffield United.
Chelsea's recent domination in this competition is only challenged by City, and they are closing in on United's record 10 wins. The investment Chelsea have poured into their youth system left the likes of United behind, and some United coaches winced at the gulf in class when Chelsea have played their sides.
Paul McGuinness, the son of former Busby Babe and United manager Wilf McGuinness, was a coach at United for 23 years until 2016.
"When Sir Alex was there, if there was any hint of us coming second-best to Manchester City or Liverpool or whoever, he would have gone crazy," he tells Bleacher Report. "We had to be No. 1 in Manchester, No. 1 in the northwest. We had to get the best young players. If we didn't, there was absolute hell to pay.
"I'd be reluctant to buy into the explanation that City have better facilities and are paying more money—you simply have to be better than them. You have to treat the kids better, give them a better chance of playing and be better at developing people and players so that players want to come to you."
McGuiness recalls a time when young players came to United because Sir Alex Ferguson himself talked them into it. "He convinced their parents, because it was a family club with a track record of promoting young players. He could say: 'This is what we did with Ryan Giggs.' Sir Alex had the personal touch—as did others at the club.
"You don't get them all. We didn't get John Terry or Joe Cole. I remember both of them. But we got David Beckham, and Sir Alex stayed with him all along the way. He had him in the dressing room at 14; his parents felt part of it, too. If you can make it feel like a family, then it helps massively. When it comes to the crunch, when it came to those last minutes in Barcelona in 1999, there was that belief. That was borne out of experiencing things together on and off the pitch so many times. It took years to build. In the treble season alone, they came from behind eight times."
Sadly for United, Ferguson could not go on forever.
"The club was so good for the manager that he never wanted to leave," McGuinness says. "Everything was running smoothly. United need to make it so good for Mourinho that he feels the same, that he never wants to leave because he's winning and also bringing kids through that he believes in. That's the best model, the United vision, and Mourinho can be successful but cannot be compared to Sir Matt or Sir Alex unless he builds a team with homegrown players at its core."
United's focus in the immediate post-Ferguson years was not youth football. The first team quite rightly took priority and gave enough concern to remain the priority. Louis van Gaal had enough on his plate to delve too deeply into what was happening at the youth level. He was unimpressed with the quality of players coming through the ranks, but he had to turn to youngsters at the start of 2016 when injuries bit deep into his squad. The emergence of Rashford, a player who started the season hoping to move up to being a reserve player, was the best thing to come out of that.
After criticism of their parsimony, United reorganised their youth structure and began resourcing it to a level that competes with City and Chelsea. Michael Carrick helps out training with United's under-14s.
"Here's a good group of kids, and I can see that there's real potential there," says Carrick. "I wouldn't like to say who. It's not fair to pick out individuals, but I've seen some lads who've got a chance. It's miles away for them at the moment, but there's some real talent. They do the right things."
Nicky Butt heads up United's system with Nick Cox, brought in from Sheffield United. "Cox is good," says Webber. "I knew him when I was at Sheffield United. He's not afraid to go against the grain, nor does he want to over-coach players."
United have long let players develop their natural talent and skills—perhaps too much, for not every player is a natural dribbler. City offered a more specialised structure, which is one reason why the sons of former United players Robin van Persie, Darren Fletcher and Phil Neville went there, embarrassing as it was for United.
Neville's son Harvey is now at Valencia, where the family live. "Before we moved, City wanted him and I said, 'Look, son, it's going to be difficult for you with your family,'" Phil Neville says. "He told me that he wanted to make his own way and went to City. The coaches were fantastic, the facilities unbelievable. City's academy teams are winning every tournament in Europe up to the age of 16."
Webber explains how City put faith in those who know the club best. "City use a lot of ex-players like Lee Carsley, Jason Wilcox, Mark Kennedy, Simon Davies, Alan Wright and Neil Roberts. They started that with Patrick Vieira and tap into the players' knowledge. It's working. They're winning."
Former England international and City fan Trevor Sinclair is impressed by what he sees. "My eldest boy Isaac, 15, who is at Fleetwood, went to City, and while he wasn't a million miles away from the standard, he was another fish in a big bowl," Sinclair says.
"I loved the calmness about the place, the hunger, the facilities. I liked the way they coach the boys, with a coupled coaching system between a lead coach and another coach. The coaches bounce off each other, with one from a student academic background and another an ex-player. It wasn't necessarily the ex-player who was the most vocal with the boys, which surprised me.
"With Pep, I genuinely think there will be a pathway into the first team now," adds Sinclair. "I feel that players think they cannot take their foot off the pedal. They can catch Pep's eye and get a chance. He likes bringing young players through, he's proved that. He's a leader, and the owners have confidence in him to nurture the youngsters, and there's more sense of achievement in doing it that way rather spending huge amounts on players."
But Sinclair, along with others, points out the advantage that United have over both City and Chelsea's youth teams. Whether through expediency—in Van Gaal's case—or deliberate policy, United's youth players have a genuine chance of making it into the first team.
"It's better for the fans, too," he continues. "Look at Spurs with Harry Kane. There's a huge sense of pride that a boy who went to school with the fans on the terraces is a star in the team. When was the last time City brought players through?"
Chelsea and City may have cabinets full of youth-team trophies, but those promising starlets are currently loaned, sold and passed on to other clubs rather than progressing. Will that change?
Guardiola is at City from dawn until dusk. Mourinho the same—two workaholics basing themselves in Manchester city centre and devoting their working lives to their clubs. They're keen to stay in Manchester.
"Pep and City fit like a glove," says Sinclair. "He has pedigree. He also had the balls to play a very young team at Old Trafford this season in the EFL Cup. And they played well. Jose Mourinho went for his strongest side."
Questions were raised about Mourinho's previous failure to bring youngsters through at Chelsea before he was appointed United manager. Sinclair has his own take on this. "I feel one of the attractions of the United job for Jose was to try and repeat what Sir Alex Ferguson did with the youngsters. I think he likes that tradition, but he's had to go against it initially because he needs results—that's why he signed [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic."
So what of the glass ceiling for all of these talented youngsters which stops below the first team?
"I worry that while life is too rosy for the young players, but when they finally break their heads through the ceiling and become senior players, the moment will have passed them by," says Webber. "They'll be lads of the same age who've been at smaller clubs yet who have 50 senior games under their belts playing against men."
The big issue with younger players comes long before they're ready for the first team—it's back to Mourinho's theme of a lack of pressure. The United manager cited the Portuguese youth competitions as something that should be introduced in England for this very reason.
"Boys are 12," he told me. "They are playing these games. They have the pressure, the competition. They have the desire to win. Here? They play in the FA Youth Cup and, if they are knocked out in the first round, then it's 'Goodbye, no more competition for you'. Then, during the season, the kids of 14 or 15 here play friendlies."
Lack of experience indeed played its part as United's youth team were indeed eliminated at the first stage of the Youth Cup this season.
United fan Peter Bolton was looking forward to driving fellow fans, many of them retired, in his 14-seater mini-bus to away games in the FA Youth Cup. At youth level, players often chat with fans, allowing a genuine relationship to develop.
"For many of the players, it was their first time at Old Trafford, and they froze," Bolton says. "Playing on open pitches behind closed doors at Carrington isn't always conducive to real conditions, where games are played under lights and with a crowd."
City have built a 6,000-capacity stadium for their reserve team, while United play reserve games at Leigh Sports Village 15 miles west of Manchester.
The under-23 Premier League (Premier League 2) has few admirers, as it does not prepare for the realities of first-team football. "The sooner they are playing against men, the better," says Sinclair. "Where three points are needed, where the manager's job is under threat, the better. A real crowd can test players. Sometimes you can get the best trainers, yet you put them into a crowd and they turn to jelly."
Phil Neville, who sees Spanish youth football close at hand in Valencia, agrees. "The standard of the top players from 10 to 17 in England is actually higher than the standard of player that I've seen in Spain," he says.
"The problem is that at 17, we lose a lot of players in England because the standards are just not good enough going forward. Players don't go into the quality of the football they need. In Spain, the 18-year-olds are playing against men in the second, third and fourth divisions as part of their club's B team. They've playing in proper games against experienced pros, playing in front of crowds and having to deal with the media. English football needs to change the academy football system because it is failing big time, it's letting players down."
City have recruited heavily from Iberia for good reason, it appears.
"While there are better players in England, players in Spain tend to be more technically and tactically aware at a young age because of the coaching they get," Neville explains. "They know which angles to take, body shape, which space to take on the pitch and which areas are the most dangerous. A lot of them want to go England because of the superior facilities, the quality and, crucially, because of the money, but I still think there are better youth players in England than Spain."
The lesser facilities in Spain, are, Neville thinks, sometimes beneficial.
"My son is 14. All he has to do is play football. There's no sport science. He plays on substandard pitches against opponents who want to kick lumps out of them because they're Valencia. He sits on a bus for seven hours to play in a tournament, he has one pair of socks to last the season, one shirt. It's tough, but character-building.
"They played in a tournament with Benfica, who won the tournament and celebrated like they'd won the Champions League. It was like when we were kids at United. Our philosophy was winning. If we had to man-mark Ivan de la Pena, the best young player in Europe at the time, then we did that because it helped us win. Winning, more than anything else, breeds confidence.
Ian Brunton is a longtime fan of United's young sides and watched Neville and Co. in the youth ranks.
"I remember the '92 youth team having lumps kicked off them by Marine, Morecambe and the likes," he says. "Blokes in their 30s who hated young flash bastards and wanted to bring them down a peg or two. Nicky Butt and even tiny Paul Scholes would kick them back because they had to. The coach, Eric Harrison, demanded it of them, and they were more scared of him than a hairy arsed docker playing for Marine."
That's the same Nicky Butt, who, at 17, chinned Liverpool's Jan Molby in a reserve match at Anfield after Molby had been kicking him to unsettle him.
But English youth football and wider social expectations have moved on from the days when youngsters were hardened by facing tough older opponents bent on putting them in their place, changing in shabby, cold facilities and risking constant injury on rutted pitches covered in dog feces. A return to that is not feasible, though introducing greater competition and more matches certainly is. On the latter point, there are times when a month goes by with no games for the top youth teams in Manchester.
All said and done, United remain the club more likely to give youth a chance than City.
"Look at Rashford, who looks like a top player," concludes Phil Neville. "United produced three players for a title-winning team at Leicester last season, and there are others who came through their ranks at lots of clubs, from Michael Keane and Tom Heaton at Burnley to the Leicester lads. English clubs, though, are not producing enough top players for the money they are investing.
"The challenge for both United and City is that the kids must break through to the first team, especially at City. They now have to start putting these kids who are winning trophies into the first team, and I think that with Pep, they have a better chance of that happening."
Andy Mitten's Pep & Jose Chronicles is a nine-part series focused on the 2016-17 seasons of Guardiola and Mourinho in Manchester. Go back and read previous chapters: Chapter 1 / Chapter 2 / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 5 / Chapter 6.
Follow Andy on Twitter: @AndyMitten